Pat Boone shares memories of ‘Journey to the Center of the Earth’ at TCM Cruise
The importance of horror and sci-fi movies from the classic film era tends to be overshadowed when compared to today’s big-budget CGI-films.
So when you learn a 1959 sci-fi flick helped save the day when a big-budget epic was sucking a major movie studio dry, classic film fans want to share the tale – especially when the storyteller is Pat Boone.
The entertainment legend was discussing his lengthy career on the 2022 TCM Cruise and often brought up Journey to the Center of the Earth, one of his earliest films and the one that propelled him to movie stardom.
The movie was the first of multiple adaptations of the imaginative 1864 novel by Jules Verne about adventurers on a quest to find the center of the earth, as the title so succinctly sums up. It also was one of the factors that helped 20th Century-Fox stave off bankruptcy from the much-delayed and well over budget Elizabeth Taylor–Richard Burton epic Cleopatra.
The long road to the big screen for Cleopatra started in 1958 when Walter Wagner’s production company partnered with the studio. It was another two years before principal photography started on Cleopatra and another three years before it would be released. Time is money and the prolonged production resulted in ongoing problems for the studio including a budget that ballooned from $2 million to $44 million (about $364 million today). While the success of Journey to the Center of the Earth wasn’t the only thing that helped Fox – the studio sold off land and The Sound of Music was later released –it certainly played a starring role.
That’s a pretty cool fact and one that Boone shared with pride. “This film saved the studio. We were told they were about to shut down 20th Century-Fox and then the film came out.”
The novel was written at a time when the idea that the earth was hollow at its center was a popular theory. And there was still much to learn about the planet so people could imagine anything and everything: lost worlds, unexplored regions, magnificent creatures and unexplained phenomenon.
For the movie, the setting was moved from Germany to 1880 Edinburgh, Scotland. Geologist and Professor Oliver Lindenbrook (the esteemed James Mason) is being celebrated for his new title of “Sir.” Boone plays Alec McEwan, a student who clearly has a special bond with his professor (the two actors also have a great screen chemistry), and gifts Lindenbrook with a volcanic rock he found in a curiosity window.
“It’s a scholaris choice,” a happy Lindenbrook tells him. But the rock is much heavier than it should be and that demands attention.
When the professor misses dinner, young Alec and Lindenbrook’s niece Jenny (Diane Baker), who are sweet on each other, find him in his laboratory. A small explosion – the type we have in these movies as a shortcut to learning important information – breaks open the rock exposing a man-made object. It’s signed by Arne Saknussemm who disappeared 300 years earlier on his journey to the center of the Earth through Iceland.
Excitement is in the air!
Lindenbrook reaches out to the world authority on volcanoes, Professor Göteborg. His delayed response raises red flags that send Lindenbrook and Alec to Iceland.
What Lindenbrook feared is happening as Göteborg is preparing for his own expedition. To slow them down, Göteborg has Lindenbrook and Alec kidnapped so they will miss the brief moment when the sun illuminates the mountain opening toward the center of the Earth. (Sound familiar? It’s the first time we see how Journey inspired the 1981 blockbuster Raiders of the Lost Ark.)
Our kidnapped explorers get a soft landing when they’re dumped in a bin of goose feathers and are rescued by the non-English speaking Hans (Peter Ronson) and his duck Gertrude (played by herself). This film not also has a sense of awe, but a light sense of humor, too.
Sadly it doesn’t end well for Göteborg who is murdered. His widow, Carla (Arlene Dahl), offers our guys a deal: They can have all her husband’s expensive equipment and food, plus she will translate for Hans – if she can go on the expedition, too. Carla drives a hard bargain that they can’t refuse.
But the Fab 5 – Lindenbook, Alec, Carla, Hans and Gertrude – won’t be alone. Tracking them is Count Saknussemm who we know isn’t a good guy because ominous music is heard when he comes on screen, and he’s played by the naturally creepy Thayer David (Dark Shadows). Saknussemm feels he’s entitled to the discovery and all that money and acclaim that comes with it.
The adventure is on and each cavern and passageway brings wonder or danger: winds, a whirlpool, luminescent algae, lava, a magnificent “ocean of the underworld” and giant creatures – the stars of so many 1950’s films.
The explorers will walk on thin ledges where someone is bound to slip, outrun a giant boulder (again, a scene duplicated in Raiders of the Lost Ark) and scale stalactites to evade flooding waters. There are giant mushrooms – think person-sized and taller – that our hungry crew will use for food, shoe bottoms and a raft. And they’ll find the holy grail: the lost city of Atlantis.
It’s all such great fun, but in his review of the film at the time of its release, grumpy New York Times critic Bosley Crowther wrote “The earth’s interior is somewhat on the order of an elaborate amusement-park tunnel of love.” That sounds like he thought it was a bad thing, forgetting that the journey in the movie, like in life, is the best thing.
Boone recalled how these adventurous scenes, done with practical – not computer-generated – stunts, brought uncomfortable and even dangerous moments to the actors.
His character Alec is separated from his traveling companions and stumbles into a salt cavern where the extreme heat leads him to start cutting off his clothes. He falls into a sinkhole of salt, then another and another.
“I’m trying not to breath. I knew it would fill up my lungs,” he said, which is evident as Boone’s face and body are covered in thick white stuff.
Then there was the exciting scene when their raft gets pulled into a whirlpool.
“It was violent. We’re in a raft, it’s in a whirlpool and it’s going to suck us down. They were pouring thousands of gallons of water on us from above,” Boone said. “We had to hold on. We are 8 feet in the air and spinning.”
And that’s when actress Arlene Dahl began screaming at director Henry Levin to “get me down,” Boone said.
She was freaked out to the extent that she passed out.
But perhaps the scariest moment of shooting for Boone, a deeply religious man, was when he lands “naked” in a tree by a nunnery.
“All I had on in the scene was a skin-colored speedo,” he laughed along with the TCM audience.
* * * *
In addition to introducing the film on the TCM Cruise, Boone also did a book signing and two lengthy “conversations” where he talked in-depth about his career and co-stars. Here are a few highlights.
On becoming a film actor: “I was stunned. I had studied some acting … but I didn’t think of myself as an actor.”
On a role model: “If I was gonna be in a movie, my role model was Bing Crosby. I just wanted to be a teenage Bing Crosby.”
On James Mason: “He had a surprising sense of humor. He kept to himself but was companionable.” Boone said he also “hummed a lot” and thought it could have been to keep his voice mellow.
On the film’s premise: “If you’re really gonna go to the center of the earth, you’re not coming back, but in this movie you could,” Boone laughed.
On how he finally agreed to do Journey to the Center of the Earth. “I didn’t want to do sci-fi. I wanted to do musicals. They kept after me and finally my manager said they’re offering you a piece of the film.”
But he wanted something else even more. “I said I wanted to sing,” Boone said. And he did, performing The Faithful Heart and My Life is Like a Red, Red Rose (based off the poem by Robert Burns) to his on-screen love interest, Diane Baker.
“I would like to be remembered for those two songs,” he said.
– Toni Ruberto for Classic Movie Hub
You can read all of Toni’s Monsters and Matinees articles here.
Toni Ruberto, born and raised in Buffalo, N.Y., is an editor and writer at The Buffalo News. She shares her love for classic movies in her blog, Watching Forever and is a member of the Classic Movie Blog Association. Toni was the president of the former Buffalo chapter of TCM Backlot and now leads the offshoot group, Buffalo Classic Movie Buffs. She is proud to have put Buffalo and its glorious old movie palaces in the spotlight as the inaugural winner of the TCM in Your Hometown contest. You can find Toni on Twitter at @toniruberto.
Love this film. Remarkable special effects for its time. Fabulous musical score too.
Many thanks for sharing Pat Boone’s comments.
Hi Vienna: – I love this film, too. Glad that you mentioned the music. I’m happy you enjoyed Pat Boone’s memories of the film – I knew I had to share them with others.
Great article, great movie., great memories!!! Thank you !!!
Thank you for reading.
Great write-up, Toni! I’ve neither seen Journey to the Center of the Earth (I remember it coming on Family Classics when I was little) nor Raiders of the Lost Ark. Thanks to your post, I now want to see both. I’ve only seen Pat Boone in one movie — State Fair (and that was just earlier this year!), but I’d like to check him out in this. What a kick it must have been to see him in person!
Hi Karen: Thanks for the compliment. When you have the time, I hope you will check out both films. They are highly entertaining adventure films – not horror movies. It was wonderful seeing Pat Boone in person and listening to his stories.